This article was first published by New Matilda.
As Australian policy makers focus on building a system of deterrence the Rohingya people face few options aside from the perilous journey. Mark Isaacs travelled to Bangladesh and Burma to hear their stories.
The families in Kutupalong tell me they fled their homeland, the Rakhine state in Burma, to cross the Bangladeshi border after they were attacked by Rakhine Buddhist mobs during ethnic violence in June 2012.
“One night they came through our village with machetes killing people,” Sadaq, one of the leadership representatives of the Kutupalong camp says.
They fled by the river but because many couldn’t swim they drowned. They remained in hiding from the Rakhine attackers and the Burmese military who were also shooting at them.
“I was taken by Rakhine men and forced to work as a slave on a farm until the day I escaped and made it to Bangladesh,” Sadaq says.
I am sitting in a dusty Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, listening to families plead for food for their starving children. It is most likely the refugees who this year made headlines after being stranded in the Andaman Sea come from camps in south Bangladesh like Kutupalong. Sitting in the sweltering heat confronted by the Rohingya people’s hopeless situation, I can see the desperation that makes people risk the Andaman Sea and worse perils for the slim chance of a future in South East Asia and beyond.
The conflict that caused these families to flee in 2012 wasn’t the first time ethnic violence erupted in the region between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims.
Tension between the two ethnicities stretches back hundreds of years to the early years of British colonial rule. To briefly summarise a complex and controversial history: the Rohingya people claim they are indigenous to the Rakhine state and are requesting recognition of their ethnicity from the Burmese government, which would entitle them to citizenship. This is a claim that the Rakhine Buddhists resent. They boast a proud heritage in the region dating back thousands of years and are currently involved in armed conflict against the Burmese government demanding greater autonomy in their region.
The Burmese government refuses to acknowledge Rohingya heritage claims; instead using their ethnic, linguistic, and religious similarity to the Bangladeshi people to classify them as Bangladeshi immigrants. The Burmese government says that the Rohingya people migrated to Burma from Bangladesh during British colonial rule in the 19th century and in order to be recognised as an official minority the Rohingya people have to prove their residence in Burma dates back further than 1823. The government revoked citizenship rights for the Rohingya people in 1982 with the passing of the Burma Citizenship Laws and is now only offering citizenship to Rohingya people who change their country of origin to Bangladesh, in essence rewarding those who sacrifice a claim to their historical identity for an uncertain place in the Burmese nation.
The Rohingya people I talk to in Kutupalong have a simple explanation for the conflict.
“They don’t want us because we are Muslim,” Sadaq says.
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government state that the Rohingya people belong to the state of Burma and place the onus to settle them on the Burmese government. Without recognition from either nation, the UNCHR estimates close to to one million Rohingya people are in effect stateless.
Over the years simmering ethnic tension between the Rakhine and Rohingya people have turned local disputes into conflict. When tension erupts into violence people are forced to flee their homes. The June 2012 violence was sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men on 28 May. The next years of retaliatory killings and violence against the Rohingya population saw two hundred people murdered, homes destroyed, and according to UNHCR figures, 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya but some Rakhine as well, forced to flee their homes.
A few weeks before the Andaman Sea incident I was in the city of Sittwe in the Rakhine state. Sittwe was once a city of diversity, the melting point of the state between Muslim north and Buddhist south. But since the 2012 violence Muslims are nowhere to be seen in public. The mosque in the centre of town, believed to date from the 12th or 13th century, is abandoned, cordoned off by barriers of barbed wire and soldiers with guns. Sittwe used to be home to about 73,000 Rohingya people, a community that has been sectioned off into a Muslim quarter, known as Aung Mingalar, or into internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps such as Boomey.